Despite what Jules Verne may have you believe, it’s not exactly possible to journey to the center of the Earth. As such, it’s pretty difficult to gain a full understanding of what the core of our planet looks like. NASA is trying the next best thing.
It’s set to launch a mission to an asteroid that’s understood to be largely made up of iron and nickel. In fact, this metal-rich asteroid, which is called 16 Psyche, is believed to once have been part of a planetary core. This is the first NASA mission to study an asteroid that has more metal than rock or ice.
Launch for the Psyche mission is targeted for 10:16AM ET on Thursday. The spacecraft will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida (this will be the first of several NASA science missions in which the primary payload will launch on one of those rockets). You can watch a live stream of the launch below.
The Psyche spacecraft is around the size of a small van. As soon as it reaches the asteroid, it will start sending images of 16 Psyche back to Earth. It’s equipped with a magnetometer, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer and a multispectral imager to study the asteroid. It will spend around two years snapping photos, mapping the asteroid’s surface and collecting data to gain a better understanding of 16 Psyche’s composition.
The spacecraft, which is powered by solar electric propulsion, is expected to reach 16 Psyche (which is in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) in July 2029. If NASA had been ready to launch the mission last year, as was previously the plan, it might have been able to reach 16 Psyche as early as 2026.
NASA understands that the 173-mile wide 16 Psyche asteroid may, in fact, not be an exposed core of a planetesimal, an early planetary building block. The agency says that it might instead be the “leftover piece of a completely different kind of iron-rich body that formed from metal-rich material somewhere in the solar system.”
The spacecraft will have a second job to do. It will also test new laser communications tech from NASA JPL called Deep Space Optical Communications. This is said to be able to transfer data and images at least 10 times faster than conventional systems. The experiment will test how capable the system is of transmitting data at faster rates beyond the Moon. However, it won’t be used to send back any Psyche mission data.